What's Behind the US Military Raid on Syria?

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AFP / Getty

Syrian television shows a survivor of what the Syrian media reported was a U.S. military attack on a building site in the Syrian village of Al-Sukkiraya

Sunday's surprise raid by helicopter-borne U.S. troops in eastern Syria raises at least three key questions. Given that the U.S. is saying the number of volunteer fighters infiltrating Iraq from Syria has dwindled significantly in the past 18 months, why was this action deemed necessary? Does the raid signal a shift in U.S. tactics in the region? And with just over a week before the U.S. presidential election, why now?

In what is thought to be the first such incursion from the Iraq side since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, at least four U.S. helicopters crossed Iraq's western border with Syria and attacked what officials in Damascus said was a half-constructed building in Sukkariyeh Farm, 5 miles from the Syrian frontier town of Abu Qamal. Eight people were reported to have been killed in the raid. Damascus "condemns this aggression and holds the American forces responsible," said the Syrian government in a statement that went on to demand that the Iraqi government launch an investigation into "this serious violation."

The flow of foreign fighters from Syria into Iraq was Washington's chief complaint with Damascus following the 2003 invasion. Analysis of al-Qaeda documents seized by American troops in Sinjar in northern Iraq last year suggested that 90% of foreign fighters entering Iraq came from Syria. However, the figures have dropped significantly, according to U.S. officials. In July, an estimated 20 fighters per month were reported to be entering Iraq, an 80% drop compared with a year earlier. In September, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat that the number of foreign fighters crossing from Syria into Iraq was down. She ascribed the reduction to the efforts of coalition forces and the Iraqis rather than a change of policy by Syria.

Last week, Major General John Kelly, commander of coalition forces in western Iraq, said security along Iraq's borders with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan was fairly tight but that the Syrian frontier remained porous. "The Syrian side is, I guess, uncontrolled by their side," Kelly said. "We still have a certain level of foreign-fighter movement." He told Pentagon reporters via teleconference last week, "We're doing much more work along the Syrian border than we've done in the past," adding that Iraqi security and intelligence forces "feel that al-Qaeda operatives and others operate, live pretty openly on the Syrian side."

Cross-border strikes are an increasingly common tactic by U.S. forces operating along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. U.S. missile-launching drones reportedly killed at least 20 people on Sunday in Pakistan's South Waziristan province close to the Afghan border, an area suspected of harboring al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Andrew Exum, a former U.S. Army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as founder of the influential Abu Muqawama counterinsurgency blog, suggests that the American action in Syria shows that the tactic may simply have been exported. "The precedent has already been established of crossing borders into safe havens. Operational commanders would have to be thinking, If we can do it in Pakistan, why can't we do it in Syria?" he says.

Experts with knowledge of the region say they suspect the raid into Syria was conducted by a U.S. special-operations unit rather than regular military forces. They cite Task Force 88, a hunter-killer team, as the unit that most likely carried out the attack. By having such clandestine teams carrying out these strikes, the U.S. government restricts how many people inside the government are aware of the details, enabling Pentagon spokesmen to honestly say they know nothing about them.

This is not the first such raid into Syrian territory in recent years. In September 2007, Israeli jets bombed a site in northeast Syria suspected of being a nuclear facility. Syria has also been shaken by attacks from within its borders. In February, Imad Mughniyah, posthumously identified as the top military commander of Lebanon's militant Shi'ite Hizballah, was assassinated in a car-bomb explosion in Damascus. Last month, a rare car bomb exploded in the Syrian capital, killing 28 people.

That car-bombing was blamed on jihadists. It was followed by a gun battle in a Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus in which a number of militants were killed and arrested. Syrian troops have also deployed along the northern border of neighboring Lebanon in what Damascus says is an attempt to block jihadists from slipping into Syria. These recent developments have raised speculation that Syria is threatened by a blowback from jihadist militants who no longer have easy access to cross the border into Iraq and instead are turning their attention to the secular regime in Damascus. "We assumed the Syrians were chucking people in jail, which they could be doing, but it could also be that the foreign fighters are backing up at the border with Iraq and they can't go home because their own governments will arrest them," says Andrew Tabler, a Damascus-based analyst and editor of Syria Today magazine.

Analysts in the region suspect that the decision to mount a cross-border raid into Syria was driven more by the military needs of Army commanders in Iraq than by political calculations from Washington. According to the analysts, the Joint Special Operations Command has considerable autonomy in choosing missions in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters. "This is coming out of the Army. I don't think this is a parting shot from the Bush Administration," Tabler says.

Still, there are widespread suspicions that political rather than military considerations dictated the timing of the raid, since the Republicans could be expected to benefit from any renewed concerns over terrorism. "This is all related to the elections in the U.S. The timing is so close," contends Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst. "Bringing out the 'terrorist threat,' magnifying it, projecting it as a monster that needs to be dealt with on the spot ... serves nobody but John McCain." A parting shot from the Administration of President George W. Bush, or the beginning of a new military policy in the region? Syria — and the rest of the world — will be keeping a close watch on its eastern border.

— With reporting by Mark Thompson / Washington